I won't lie: everything about the drama Ocean Heaven reeks of the kind of treacly drama and straining for "seriousness" that every action star seems to go through at least once in their career. In this case, it's Jet Li, who's been called on to play "stoic" in a variety of ways throughout his 30-year martial arts film career. As a matter of fact, it's seldom that he played anything else. I'm not knocking it--he's done stoic very well in his career, building a reputation as a kind of dormant volcano that gives off the impression of being very sturdy and very dangerous under the right conditions.
That may have been a rough metaphor.
Let me try again: Ocean Heaven is an affecting and frequently heartbreaking film that uses loosens up Li's patented stoicism a bit and applies it to a parent in a difficult circumstance made tragic. The beauty of this film (and it is beautiful in its sentiment) is that it about a father's boundless love for his son, and it tells its story directly, and honestly (at least for these characters and their circumstances) and deals with autism in a way that's fairly sensitive.
The first time we meet Li's character Sam, he's bound himself to his son and is prepared to drown them both in the sea. Sam is a widower dying of cancer and his son is 22 years old, autistic, and when we meet him, mostly incapable of taking care of himself. They don't drown--his son, David--somehow understands that he needs to untie them both. So they live and Sam is back where he was before we met him: dying with no one to take care of his son, who has occupied nearly every moment of every day of Sam's life for 22 years.
Here's where the movie will either grab hold of you or it won't: Sam struggles frantically to find a facility to take care of his adult son, finding few resources in place in mainland China for adult autistics.
This is the first film for director/writer Xiao-Lu Xue who has spent the last 14 years working with the organization Beijing Stars and Rain, which is dedicated to providing education of autistic children. She films the movie with a direct, unadorned "point and shoot" style that makes what occurs onscreen more effective. I was actually surprised to find out that Christopher Doyle was the cinematographer for the movie.
I think it works because we're allowed to see the character of a father love his son more than anything while trying to keep it together as his health fails. It never feels like an actor trying as hard as he can to show us that he cares about a cause and the matter-of-fact way he works his way through the system to find help for his son never feels like a polemic or vague rattling off of facts about autism. The circumstances are what they are and Sam does his best.
How is Li? He's terrific, honestly. He's called upon to hold a lot of emotion in, to play the role very quietly, containing mounting stress as his character's time gets shorter. He has a particularly great scene where he admits feelings to a widow that maybe he should have gotten out years before. It's a short scene, but his explanation for why he never acted on his feelings speaks volumes for the character and the way Li plays it speaks volumes for an actor who should take a break from the historical epics for a while (don't worry, we have plenty of them) and show us more of the range and depth he's been hiding all these years.
Ocean Heaven will be screening as part of the 10th annual New
York Asian Film Festival on Thursday, July 7th. You can find out more
information at the NYAFF website.